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The HBCU presidential pressure cooker – historically Black colleges and universities

Faced with hostile legislatures, growing enrollments, and shrinking budgets, the presidents of many historically Black colleges and universities are also under increasing pressure from their boards of trustees to perform “satisfactorily” or get out.

Losing top administrators at a rapid pace is becoming a universal problem in higher education. Some public HBCUs leaders, however, are leaving at a higher rate. Since 1984, Alabama A&M University has had six presidents and interim presidents. Virginia State University has had four.

In July, AAMU selected John T. Gibson as its ninth president, and times are already tough. His appointment has been called the “death knell” for the university by critics among the faculty and, although Gibson has a four-year contact, Board President Pro Tempore Chris McNair said the Board of Trustees will conduct an evaluation after his first year in office.

When Virginia State University President Eddie Moore was interviewed by his board three years ago, he felt it didn’t have a good understanding of the problems facing the university.

“We started what we call a `Board Education Program’ with all the information and news of what’s going on on campus,” Moore said. “It does give me some concern that people are coming in without a history. They have an expectation of what should be [and] if it’s not that way, they start blaming the president. I am passing out a book [to the board] on the role of the board.”

Moore feels that board stability is important. Since he was hired three years ago, Moore has seen the entire 11-member VSU Board of Visitors turn over — five new members in 1994 and six new members in 1996, all appointed by Republican Governor George Allen, who has systematically replaced all the appointements made by his predecessor, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. Moore will start the 1996-97 academic year with a board that had nothing to do with his hiring. And it should be noted that VSU is the only higher-learning institution in the state that has had a complete board makeover since 1993.

Moore wants a study done to look at the connection between presidency and board turnover rates. “That’s the story behind the story. If presidents aren’t staying, what is the board doing?” he asked. “It’s a nationwide problem…. I’m not going to tell you I have the solution. Next year is telling for me with 11 new board members.

For public Black colleges, it’s a more political environment, said Joyce Payne, director of the National Association of State Universities and Landgrant Colleges’ office of advancement for public Black colleges. According to Payne, private schools don’t have the same cumbersome layers that public schools have to wade through.

Payne would like to see presidents have greater influence on boards and on selecting boards members. “We really do need to look at the structure of public colleges. Black colleges have to look at how they select their board members who, [in turn], select their president,” she said.

South Carolina State University has had its share of presidents and interims.”But we’re hoping for stability,” said Leroy Davis, who was appointed president earlier this year after interim service. He said presidents must be concerned with managing fiscal affairs, containing cost and fees — and all this requires stable leadership.

“We’re very much aware of the problems. My goal is to give the institution stability and provide leadership. There are no short term solutions. When you bring in new leaders, institutions have to readjust,” Davis said.

“You have to have some sense of the campus environment, some sense of expectation of the campus board and what’s important to them. Then you have to go about the business of getting to know what people want by listening and developing some organized approach to address the concerns,” he said.

Davis said Florida A&M and North Carolina A&T, although larger and more comprehensive in programs offered, have had a rather lengthy run of leadership with good reputations and responded well to changes. “They serve as good points of reference — [being able] to see what they are doing to face some of the same challenges. We can’t be everything to everyone, you have to find your niche, maybe have fewer programs but make them extraordinary,” Davis said.

“I don’t know whether tenure at public HBCUs is shorter than ordinary higher education,” said Fred Humphries, president at Florida A&M. Acknowledging that there are changes happening that tend to shorten tenure, he added, “It’s like a quiet revolution.”

According to Humphries, presidents of institutions of higher learning are also under fire from legislatures that think schools have too much administration. He laments that some things are not getting done because there has been a reduction of funds to assist with the actual cost of running an institution. “It’s a much more stringent period of accountability,” he said. “People are seriously questioning how hard we in higher education are working. They want to know if they are getting what they pay for.”

Humphries has been at FAMU for 12 years, with an impressive run of 11 straight years of growth that includes improvements in campus facilities, faculty involvement and student enrollment (which was 10,500 last semester, up from 5,101 in 1985). “We’re really pushing hard. We keep putting new things before them,” he said.

Still, Humphries sees the problems many of his colleagues have. “It’s in a stir, it’s externally driven and you get caught in that,” he said. Presidents — public or private — have to: raise money; be concerned about Black faculty serving as role models; and help their graduates find jobs; among other things. “It’s just a hard time in higher education and everybody is feeling the pinch,” he said. “Tempers are high and people reach conclusions earlier that it’s time to say good-bye.”

“The problems at public HBCUS are not unlike the problems faced by the majority institutions,” said Asa Spaulding, a management consultant who is chairman of National Association of Minority Trusteeship in Higher Education.

Spaulding, who has served on several boards, says, “Among the problems that exist in a number of institutions is, one, how studiously trustees have done their homework and, number two, sporadic attendance at board and committee meetings. Good and responsible trusteeship is hard work and everyone who serves in such a role is not necessarily up to the task.”

Higher education, as a whole, is burdened with discordance, observed Stillman College President Cordell Wynn, who also noted that some legislatures feel public schools are doing a poor job and are cutting funding. “There is more pressure on presidents today in higher education than ever before,” said Wynn, who is retiring next year after serving more than 15 years at the Alabama private institution.

Wynn said his tenure has been good because, “I had a Board of Trustees that was in sync with the goals for the school. We worked for Stillman College — not Cordell Wynn, the board, or any one person.”

The Association of Governing Boards, recognizing that the issue of strained leadership between governing boards and presidents has become a problem, created an independent committee to study the issue. The board, headed by former Virginia governor Gerald Baliles, is expected to recommend in early September that there be a strengthening of the selection, orientation and training of new board members.

And while high turnover rates among college and university presidents are not unique to HBCUs, they do appear to be higher among Black institutions.

“A common thread is the inability of presidents to get along with boards. There is always someone in disagreement — which also says we need to develop boards that can work,” Wynn advised. “Stability of boards is very important, some state schools don’t have tenure or longevity among board members.”

“My plea to higher education is for presidents and chief executive officers to work together to maintain stability. Unless there is a coming together of our governing boards, we’ll continue to have high turnover and attract less qualified presidents. Whatever the goals are, [they] should be done collectively. Let the president do his job — be an administrator — and [let] the board make policy.”

COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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